Saturday, May 22, 2010

Supreme Court rules life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment for juveniles

The juvenile justice system reached a major turning point this week when the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing non-violent juvenile offenders to life in prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore violates the Eighth Amendment.

At the end of 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to review issue of juvenile life imprisonment by looking at two cases. For the first case, a jury in 1989 found 13-year-old Joe Sullivan guilty of sexual battery. About a decade and a half later, 17-year-old Terrence Graham was convicted of committing armed burglary and violating his probation. Though both boys were too young to vote, buy cigarettes, or enlist in the military, they were not too young to be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP). Both boys were convicted of non-homicidal offenses and both were sentenced to LWOP. The juvenile justice world has been waiting anxiously since these cases made the docket, as a ruling that overturns life sentences for juveniles affects approximately 2,600 currently incarcerated inmates nationwide, and will impact future sentencing.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the majority opinion (which included support from the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association), which was in favor of banning LWOP for juvenile offenders. Support for the ban generally falls into three categories:
  1. Kristin Henning, co-director of Juvenile Justice Clinic and law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, cites research that states that juveniles brains are not fully developed, causing children to act impulsively. The research also states that children are likely to outgrow the impulse for criminal behavior, though juveniles sentenced to LWOP are not given that chance.
  2. The United States is possibly the only country that currently sentences juveniles to LWOP. While the U.S. currently has about 2,6000 juveniles serving life without parole, Henning claims that no other countries have children serving such sentences; other sources cite no more than 12 foreign juveniles are in prison serving LWOP.
  3. In 2005, the Supreme Court reviewed Roper v. Simmons, and declared the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional. Proponents of overturning LWOP in juvenile cases cite the 2005 ruling combined with a national consensus against juvenile life without parole in their arguments.
The Supreme Court ultimately agreed, as Justice Kennedy cited the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause, which "does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a non-homicide crime."

I agree with the majority opinion in this case, though I am disappointed that the ruling does not include the seven states (including Massachusetts) that allow LWOP in homicide cases. Though homicide is a horrific offense, I think that juveniles convicted of any crime should have the opportunity for parole. A juvenile incarcerated at the age of 15 and living the average male's lifespan, for example, has more than 60 years to spend in prison. A juvenile sentence that long is ridiculous regardless of the offense.

The bottom line is that the U.S. was virtually alone in its practice of sentencing juveniles to LWOP. With any luck, the practice will be completely overturned in my lifetime. At the very least, nearly 3,000 inmates incarcerated as juveniles will now have the opportunity to be paroled. It is my firm belief that with the appropriate resources, juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated to successfully reintegrate into society. This ruling is a victory for all those juvenile justice workers maneuvering to secure rights for juvenile offenders. May there be many more victories in the future.

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